Rhiannon Giles Durham’s 11-year-old daughter has a common fear of bees and spiders: cautious because of the sting-and-bite potential but recognizing that if the critters are treated with respect, they likely pose little danger. But the North Carolina mom’s six-year-old son is terrified of all bugs (except for butterflies): Just the sight of benign critters like gnats or flies sends him running.
Fear of bugs is common for children. But according to psychologist Nina Kaiser, helping kids overcome any common childhood fear is a step toward teaching them to deal with any worry as they grow older. “Childhood is a perfect time for teaching skills around managing worry or fear that will help kids be better prepared to cope with triggers,” she says.
And besides: Bugs are everywhere! In fact, a 2016 study from North Carolina State University found that the average American home shares space with up to a hundred species of bugs. “We are surrounded by them,” says entomologist Eleanor Spicer Rice, author of Ants: Workers of the World. “If you can find out what they’re doing there and learn more about them, your world will become a more vibrant, exciting place.”
And that, she says, can help kids develop into environmental stewards.
“Bugs help sustain life and are one of our greatest allies in creating a harmonious and working ecosystem,” Spicer Rice says. “Teach children the important roles of bugs in nature, beginning with our own recognition and understanding.”
Whether your child tries to murder all the innocent bees or freaks out over butterflies, understanding why kids behave the way they do can help parents not only conquer their child’s fears but show them how important bugs are. Experts weigh in on the science behind childhood bug-o-phobia and offer up tips on helping kids deal.
Why kids fear bugs
Although a healthy fear of a critter that stings or bites makes sense, a kid’s total aversion to a tiny thing that means them no harm can be frustrating. But experts say this fear has likely been hardwired in our brains.
“Fear is a very basic human emotion that serves a protective role from an evolutionary perspective,” says adult and child psychiatrist Rashmi Parmar.
Essentially, our brains alert us to any perceived danger to keep us safe. So for instance, a brain that understands that a wasp can sting might have the same response to any large flying insect. Parmar says that can trigger the brain’s “fight-or-flight” response, which releases the stress hormone cortisol. The resulting increased heart rate and extra blood flow to muscles helped our ancestors fight off or flee from threats—and will likely kick in when any kind of bug is crawling toward your kid.
“Unexpected, unfamiliar, or rapid movements can make bugs feel even more unpredictable and threatening,” Kaiser says.
Those freaky movements—as well as a bug’s multiple legs, beady eyes, and crunchy outsides (or gooey insides)—can also illicit a disgust or dread response that might be mistaken for fear, Parmar says. In fact, one study conducted by Georgia Institute of Technology (in partnership with Orkin) found that when participants were shown images of insects, the brain’s insula—an area in the cerebral cortex associated with disgust—responded.
What fear of bugs looks like
Most children will likely have some hesitation around bugs that they’ll outgrow as they get older. But Kaiser says an outright fear manifests similarly regardless of age.
Children might look uncomfortable, afraid, or upset, and actively try to avoid or escape bugs. “Some kids may become more quiet, freeze up, or shut down,” she adds. “Other kids may become louder, cry, or melt down, or even run away or hide.”
That said, Kaiser believes that a toddler’s response comes from emotion—i.e., a bug is just “scary”—while an older child’s reaction is likely from avoidance. (“That insect might sting me” or “That bug has been crawling around in the trash.”)
Surprisingly, infants and toddlers often aren’t as afraid of bugs as older children since they haven’t yet learned that behavior. At this developmental stage, it’s more about curiosity and looking to those around them for clues “to understand if and how much they should adore or fear something,” says psychiatrist Pavan Madan, who works with children, adolescents, and adults.
“Strategies involving distraction work the best,” he advises. Showing infants or toddlers another object or tickling them may be enough to divert their attention away from the bug without scaring them. It might also be worth giving kids an extra snuggle so they know they have nothing to fear.
Although a healthy aversion to bugs is normal, Parmar says parents should be on the lookout for long-term anxiety that impacts daily activities, for instance if a child refuses to go on an outdoor field trip or play outside. That’s when a mental health professional should probably be consulted.
Keeping kids from bugging out
Exposing kids early to nature is a great way to prevent a fear of bugs from ever taking hold. “This helps them learn about bugs and their function in nature and may reduce excessive anxiety at a later stage,” Madan says.
If fact, one 2018 study conducted with school-age children showed that knowledge about insects reduced irrational fears and phobias. Spicer Rice tells parents to teach children about the importance of bugs and biodiversity—that a healthy ecosystem depends on all types of critters, not just the cute ones. Bees might sting, but they also pollinate plants that give us food we depend on. Ants and worms might be freaky, but they also dig tunnels that provide water and nutrients to roots. Spiders might bite, but they eat a lot of pesky bugs.
But if a child does exhibit an aversion to bugs, experts say that acknowledging a child’s fear—no matter how irrational you might think it is—is the first step toward overcoming it.
For toddlers and younger children, Kaiser says parents might hold a child’s hand and calmly say, "Yes, that's a bug! I can tell you're feeling a little scared, but it's OK—it won't hurt us. Let's watch it crawl away.”
For school-age children, Madan advises allowing kids to share their feelings—and then validating them: “I know that bees sting, and that can be scary. But bees won’t hurt you if you leave them alone.”
Then try to determine what the child is actually afraid of. How quickly the insect moves? That it’s dirty? That it might sting or bite? Parents can then offer logical responses: that an undisturbed bug probably won’t disturb you, that they have more to fear from us than we do of them. And, of course, how beneficial they are to keeping our planet healthy.
Work gradually with especially fearful children. Start by talking about bugs or showing them videos, then placing the child in a situation in which the kid understands that the insects aren’t a real threat. “Follow up by attempting to stand a few feet away from a bug in the home or in the backyard,” Parmar says. “The distance can be slowly reduced over time as tolerated by the child.”
Parents should also check their own behavior when it comes to bugs—if you startle easily when you see a bug, your child may do the same. “Show children how to take a second to pay attention to what the insect is and what it’s doing before they freak out that there’s an insect around at all,” Spicer Rice says.
That said, experts warn that being overly reassuring might feed a child’s anxiety. “If we’re bending over backward to reassure our child that bugs are safe, we might accidentally be sending exactly the opposite message because we’re giving this fear so much attention and validation,” Kaiser says. The trick, she says, is to find a balance between reassurance and avoidance.
So it’s fine to point out bugs that you want children to be cautious of. “Just as we teach our children to approach strange dogs with caution and respect,” Spicer Rice says, “we can teach them to be mindful of bugs with bright colors or stripes, since those often serve as warnings.
“We need bugs,” she adds. “Without them, there would be no us. They are beautiful, weird, and exciting to get to know.”